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Warners' Joan Crawford Collection Volume 2 DVD collection gets down into the star's second tier attractions and vehicles, finding a trail of movie evidence that tells the tale of a star adapting (some say mutating) to industry demands and her own aging process. It's a fun ride, and only one of the pictures falls into the 'so bad it's scary' category. The others are very entertaining. One thing can be said about Our Miss Joan: She never gave an uninvolved or dull performance.
Sadie McKee is the only film on the set from Crawford's early MGM heyday. In 1934 she's riding high playing a savvy poor girl who rises in station and proves herself the ethical equal of her 'betters'. The daughter of a cook in a one-factory town, Sadie McKee (Crawford) throws a fit at the rich folk when they decide not to forgive a dishonest employee, her boyfriend Tommy Wallace (Gene Raymond). Factory heir Mike Alderson is especially shocked when Sadie and Tommy elope to New York City; Mike was enamored of Sadie too.
The second act of this depression-era morality play sees Tommy and Sadie pretending to be newlyweds and (presumably) sleeping together. Sadie is left standing at the marriage license window while Tommy runs off to play the ukulele for the nightclub act of floozie Opal (Jean Dixon). On the rebound, Sadie takes a chorus girl job in a club run by Riccori (Akim Tamiroff). There she meets alcoholic millionaire Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold), who she befriends and marries just to spite Mike Anderson, who just happens to be Jack's lawyer. Assumed by all to be a heartless gold digger, Sadie takes an interest in saving Jack from his drinking addiction. But she also wants to find Tommy once again, as she still loves him. So little is known about the real Joan Crawford's conversion from Texas teen to New York club dancer that it's easy to see Sadie McKee as a sanitized version of her own story. The movie's reference to premarital sex might indicate that it came out before the Production Code was enforced, just under the wire. Sadie apparently sleeps with Tommy but the movie takes pains to assure us that morality guides most of her actions. One very good scene occurs when Sadie helps the inebriated Jack back home after their marriage. They finally embrace, and Joan's face reflects something she seemingly hasn't thought about much: now she's going to have to sleep with this walrus!
In approved MGM fashion, the final act is a crescendo of self-sacrifice and general good deed-doing. Sadie comes out of it all with her head held high.
The fun cast includes Franchot Tone as the disapproving lawyer / potential sweetheart; Crawford would make Tone her second husband the next year. Edward Arnold is a charming drunk and Gene Raymond the basically worthless boyfriend. First boyfriends in Crawford dramas often turn out to be losers of one ilk or another, especially in her later career. Esther Ralston is a standout as Dolly, the hefty showgirl who introduces Sadie to nightclub work. It's heavily implied through dialogue that Dolly and perhaps even Opal make money on the side turning tricks. Leo G. Carroll's butler, like the rest of the servants, rallies behind Sadie to help dry out Jack Brennan.
Making the real difference is the direction of Clarence Brown. He invests the sketchy story with integrity from one end to the other. This is actually one of Crawford's better films.
Warners have kept up their extras policy. The trailer for Sadie McKee emphasizes the input of writer Viña Delmar, implying that this 'hot' movie is the work of a great talent. The actual screenplay was by John Meehan but Delmar is associated with a number of fine movies, including Make Way for Tomorrow. Featurette Goofy Movies #4 isn't as goofy as it would like to be, and cartoon Toyland Broadcast is one of those weird 2-color musical LSD trips with dancing toys.
Strange Cargo leaps to 1940, when Joan Crawford had won a hard-fought battle to stay in the MGM major leagues. Despite a comeback in The Women she was still locked out of the top roles. Her Susan and God is a weird adaptation of a play about a society woman inspired (afflicted?) with a vague evangelical fervor. Since Hollywood wouldn't touch a script critical of religion, the play's theme is diluted to the point of meaninglessness. Rosalind Russell might have been good for the part but Crawford just waves her arms a lot and says how wonderful she feels. The same year's Strange Cargo is a full-on religious parable about an escape from Devil's Island. This 'high concept' epic is now generally considered High Camp, except that it's so well directed by Frank Borzage that it actually hangs together rather well.
Crawford is Julie, an obvious Sadie Thompson/Rain transplant. Instead of the South Seas, Julie is working as a 'singer' in a tropical mosquito trap, right in the shadow of a notorious colonial prison. It's obviously Devil's Island, but hardly anybody has a French accent. As Hollywood certainly wasn't exporting pictures to France in 1940, the attempt to make the story palatable to French censors was a waste.
Julie tangles with hard-bitten convict Andre Verne (Clark Gable) and is told to leave the island; but the men who could give her the boat fare all want favors in return, especially the opportunistic Monsieur Cochon, otherwise known as 'Pig' (Peter Lorre). Julie ends up joining a mass escape from the prison. The men are representative of human weaknesses and philosophies. Hessler (Paul Lukas) is a Bluebeard-like wife killer, Flaubert (J.Edward Bromberg) a coward, Telez (Eduardo Ciannelli) is selfish, etc. The leader is the ruthless Moll (Albert Dekker), Andre's sworn enemy.
A stranger named Cambreau (Ian Hunter) just wanders into the prison and starts taking responsibility for the other men. He joins the escape, points the way and counsels the escapees from betraying one another. A Bible is involved; the starving fugitives soon decide that Cambreau must be of divine origin. The story plays out in a way that keeps that option open.
The film is half Bible story and half The Most Dangerous Game. Every scene introduces a new moral problem in which the various escapees are judged for their sins. Some of this is halfway effective and other parts are just silly. Joan's role is prominent but she's really along for the ride, or the slog. One amusing moment has her trying to trek through a bog in shoes with heels, glorp shlorp.
The cast members all play to type, except perhaps Paul Lukas' Lucifer-like Hessler. Ian Hunter would return as another slightly ethereal presence in John Ford's The Long Voyage Home. The real injustice is meted out to Peter Lorre. Saddled with the name 'Pig', he's basically spat on by the rest of the cast and is given no opportunity to defend himself. The script just ignores Cochon at the end, as if his moral fate isn't important. Charlie Chaplin called Lorre the best actor he'd ever seen, but from this point on Lorre would receive few memorable roles.
Strange Cargo comes with a featurette about Gable and Crawford, who made a score or two of films together, were heavily romantically involved but never married -- Crawford claimed Gable was her idea of the perfect man. Also making the cut are a short subject about Nostradamus and a cartoon called The Lonesome Stranger. Warners gets defensive when old movies express racist attitudes about African-Americans, but no disclaimer accompanies this cartoon, which features a 'dirty Mexican bandit' stereotype with a constant flurry of flies buzzing around his head.
1941's A Woman's Face is a remake of the 1938 Swedish film En kvinnas ansikte, a bizarre morality tale with a dated theme but an efficient melodramatic storyline. Ingrid Bergman played the complicated heroine. Joan Crawford clearly saw the story as a vehicle to shoot for new respect as a serious actress. The resulting movie has a high reputation - some think it one of her best. Despite expert direction from George Cukor, it is a rather lumpy concoction.
The story of Anna Holm is told in flashback from her murder trial, one of those things where the aggregate witness testimony sketches a narrative with a perfect story arc. A few details are withheld until the last reel, to provide a reason for an unnecessary trial. Anna is a character invented to fit a dubious theme: one's aptitude for good or evil is based on one's appearance. As a child, Anna Holm was horribly scarred in a fire, so badly that people are repulsed and children scream. She sought solace in art, music and alcohol but when they did no good so she turned to crime. Working out of a country inn with a trio of lowlifes (Reginald Owen, Donald Meek, Connie Gilchrist) Anna finds some illicit love letters and puts 10,000 kroner's worth of blackmail pressure on society adulterer Vera Segert (beautiful Osa Massen, later of Rocketship X-M).
Anna Holm then meets two very different men. Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt, the best thing in the movie) is a Machiavellian criminal who 'understands' Anna's perverse inclination toward crime. He encourages her to fleece Mrs. Segert. Vera's husband Gustaf (Melvyn Douglas) turns out to be an experimental plastic surgeon who considers Anna's scars a professional challenge. Twelve operations later, Anna's face is restored, while Gustaf worries that he's created a Frankenstein Monster: He reasons that, with a beautiful face, Anna's wickedness might run wild.
Gustaf is right. Delighted at Anna's new countenance, Torsten arranges for his partner in crime to become the governess of a young relative. After she murders the kid, the two of them will inherit a fortune from Consul Magnus Barring (Albert Bassermann).
Director Cukor works special effects and dynamic visual designs into the picture. The bad side of Anna's face is alternately displayed and hidden. Seemingly energized by the erotic power of disfigurement, Torsten conjures up ghosts of the German Expressionist past in his rapturous attentions to his perfect partner. He eventually gets around to spilling his venom for the entire human race, which he'd like to see destroyed. After her operation, Anna walks through a corridor lined with mirrors that seem to have appeared to celebrate her restored beauty. Miracle man Gustaf not only fixes Anna's face, he gives her a philosophy to carry on -- Ann's true nature is love and beauty, not the 'bad' Anna of the ugly years. What these lessons have to offer anyone in the audience is anybody's guess.
The end of A Woman's Face becomes a toothless thriller: we know that Anna isn't going to kill the little boy. Somewhat better is a frantic sleigh chase, sort of a jingle bell Ben-Hur scene in the midnight snowdrifts. And wouldn't you know it, the trial clears the way for Gustaf and Anna to get together. Maybe the scandal of his divorce prompted Gustaf to leave Sweden for France, take up the name Genessier and set up shop with Anna as his secret co-conspirator.
A Woman's Face comes with two radio adaptations starring Conrad Veidt, playing opposite Ida Lupino and Bette Davis. A Rudolph Ising cartoon Little Cesario is about a goofy St. Bernard pup. You Can't Fool a Movie Camera pulls together odds & ends like a bridge collapsing. It segues into some nice BTS shots of MGM directors and cameramen at work, before turning into a promo for upcoming Metro product.
Flamingo Road is Joan in her post- Mildred Pierce years, settling into a rut of overheated melodramas involving compromised women and ruthless men. It's the first of a trio of David Brian movies with Joan as a quasi-criminal. The other two are the sordid The Damned Don't Cry and the ludicrous This Woman is Dangerous, her last Warner Bros. picture under her 1940s contract. Viewers younger than 50 that have heard of Flamingo Road are probably thinking of the two seasons of the 1981 weekly prime time soap version. The best thing about this show is director Michael Curtiz' blistering pace ... Joan goes through the whole rags to riches to accused murderess cycle in a record 94 minutes. 1
Flamingo Road is the first Crawford movie to begin with a 'you gotta be kidding' scene showing Joan in a part she's far to old to play. Carnival dancer Lane Bellamy presents the casting people with the challenge of finding other women to play opposite Crawford, who cannot be as attractive as she. For twenty more years, Crawford will play lookers that turn men's heads, with little evidence that such a thing is likely. The men also become weaker in character. The gutless Zachary Scott returns from Mildred Pierce and the beefy David Brian seems singularly lacking in judgment.
When the carnival breaks up, Lane Bellamy stays behind and immediately makes waves. She snags deputy sheriff Fielding Carlisle (Scott), tempting him to stray from his shallow fiancée Annabelle Weldon (Virginia Huston). This angers Sheriff Titus Semple (Sydney Greenstreet, in a great performance). Semple is a political kingmaker who wants Carlisle safely married to society girl Weldon, so he can become the puppet gubernatorial candidate for a corrupt political machine.
Fired from jobs and framed for streetwalking, Lane is ignominiously dumped by Carlisle. He's soon wallowing in self-pity yet becomes the figurehead candidate for the dealmakers anyway. Lane takes a job in the roadhouse of Lute May (Gladys George), a crypto-brothel where the women only act like prostitutes. That's where Lane meets, befriends and romances Dan Reynolds (David Brian), the most powerful of the politicos. Reynolds decided to rig elections only because it was the only way to insure access to big building projects. Otherwise, Dan's a swell guy -- the film accepts this rationalization without criticism!
Lane undergoes her expected conversion from dishrags to fancy furs; along with her new status comes a refined speaking voice, lofty morals and a new address on Flamingo Road. But when the double-crosses fly, these social niceties are not enough to keep Lane from going after the venal Titus with a gun. Flamingo Road has a shockingly blunt attitude toward civic corruption as an accepted state of affairs. Judging by the noir-ish films of the late 1940s, one would think there's no such thing as American civic virtue.
The entertaining show displays that brassy Warners forward momentum combined with some great retro-Camp moments for Joan; her Lane Bellamy is a goofy blend of glamour and frustrated accusations. The film's best line comes when Lane verbally attacks Titus Semple, criticizing his giant stomach and wishing that he'd just disappear. She tells the story of how a carnival elephant died, and then makes dagger eyes at Greenstreet: "You have no idea how difficult it is to dispose of a dead elephant!"
Flamingo Road comes with a good featurette about Crawford's ten-year stint at Warners, that started with a bang and then petered out with truly tiresome pictures like Goodbye, My Fancy. A Flamingo Road radio show reunites the stars, and the cartoon included is called Curtain Razor.
Joan Crawford returned to MGM to make Torch Song, a wildly misconceived and truly awful movie that nevertheless is a perfect Camp spectacle. Now in her late forties, Joan has maintained great legs but can't dance as she once could. The weak musical numbers are not helped by the fact that Joan is dubbed in all her singing ... with a voice that doesn't work. When the wrong voice comes out of Joan's perfectly synchronized lips, it's a real Lina Lamont disaster.
The Technicolor film looks exceedingly cheap, and its music and songs (as pointed out in the good accompanying featurette) are partly cobbled together from hand-me-downs and cast-offs from other MGM musicals. By this time (1953) Crawford was a master at having scripts customized to her needs, a skill she picked up to rescue her career from studio indifference. Torch Song plays as if its star Jenny Stewart were Joan Crawford, a high-pressure workaholic fighting for excellence in a hostile environment. Stewart gets most of the zinger lines and takes care that no other actress poaches on her turf. Beautiful Nancy Gates plays her younger sister without even a medium shot, let alone a close-up. Jenny orders up a party, inviting a guest list with no women on it. In the big one-shot scene where Jenny comes to claim the man of her dreams, she induces her competition (Dorothy Patrick) to calmly exit, wordlessly as if she had hypnotic powers. Jenny then takes the woman's place in her man's easy chair.
Jenny Stewart abuses everybody who works for or with her in the theater, yet wonders why she's lonely. Her lazy boyfriend Cliff (Gig Young, coasting) is a total drag. She dotes on her teenaged fans: she knows them by their first names. You see, Jenny does it all for the audience, her true love. Then comes blind rehearsal pianist Tye Graham, who isn't afraid to talk back to Jenny. She fires him, hires him again and becomes flustered when he doesn't behave like the other crybabies in her life. But Jenny eventually discovers why Tye wants to work with her, and realizes he's the man she's been waiting for.
Unfortunately, we're all thinking that Tye is perfect because he can't see, and therefore will always remember Jenny as she looked before he was blinded in the war, a 'gypsy Madonna.' It's the same reason women love their pets -- puppy dogs still love you if you grow old and wrinkled.
Just about every line of Crawford dialogue in Torch Song is a Camp howl, provided one comes ready to celebrate Joan's newfound status as diva-clown. That promise is fulfilled in what may be the most hideous musical number of them all, Two-Faced Woman. It was left over from The Band Wagon, where Cyd Charisse danced and pretended to sing to the pre-recorded music. Joan takes the exact same recording and stages a pitiful dance - singing scene. Joan and her chorus are badly costumed and inexplicably made up in 'mulatto' brown-face, which looks as if a demented kindergartener got loose with the crayons. Drag queens and female impersonators worship the last shot of this sequence, in which Jenny screws up her face in a Susan Tyrell-like rage and tears off her black wig to reveal the red hair underneath. A description doesn't do it justice; it's a vision of a female demon.
Torch Song comes with a Peter Fitzgerald featurette, Tough Baby, which gathers several gleeful critics and biographers (and Crawford's daughter) to dissect and hoot at Torch Song for our amusement. They say how awful it is while clearly expressing their affection. Only one commentator comes right out and says that the built-in audience for the show is gay theater and movie fans.
Rubbing salt into Crawford's memory is a selection of recording outtakes of the star attempting to sing, a weapon that could have done serious damage if used by somebody like Bette Davis! Again, this audio autopsy is something that rabid Crawford fans will want to hear. Also included is Crawford's notorious Jimmy Fund charity announcement, the one where she plays a creepy 'perfect mother' while putting the kids to bed. The cartoon is the funny Tex Avery short TV of Tomorrow. Some of the gags, like "TV will become the center of all household activity", have come to pass.
All the films are presented in beautiful transfers and sharp, clear audio. All are 1.37:1 flat full frame B&W except for the 1953 Torch Song, which appears in good color and enhanced at 1.78:1.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Joan Crawford Collection Volume 2 rates:
1. Note the opening establishing montage, that seems to have been cobbled together from outtakes. Every shot is an alternate angle of a scene from later in the film, sometimes with Crawford in the shot ... even though it's supposed to be a tour of the town before the story begins.
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